Pima County residents can use a new online survey option for data collection in the upcoming 2020 census. The online survey collection is the third method introduced by the U.S. Census Bureau, in addition to traditional phone and mail survey methods.
Online surveys are expected to be more cost-effective and increase response rates. In census test collections, the majority of recipients already chose to respond via online survey.
The census, a population count conducted every 10 years, helps determine where and how cities, counties and states will use their money and resources.
“Everyone is going to get a postcard to their address that will direct them to a link to fill out the census,” said Carla Blackwell, director of Pima County Development Services. “This will be the first census that people can answer online.”
Online surveys aren’t the only technology improving the 2020 census. Blackwell said Pima County’s use of aerial photography has improved data gathering, since the last census, in 2010.
“We now have a lot of data for every single parcel in Pima County,” she said. “Whether there has been a building permit issued on that parcel and [an understanding of] exactly what was built. One of the challenges for the census bureau previously was a lack of data.”
Blackwell called the new technology “cost-effective” because the county will not have to send a paid employee to every home. The U.S. Census Bureau has taken steps to evaluate the user response rate and ease of use of online collection. Although the electronic version of the census will open in March 2020, census officials have started preparation. Currently, census data collectors are visiting residences to verify addresses. Pima County officials estimate 35 percent of addresses still needed confirmation. Address verification is scheduled to conclude by mid-October.
Dennis Johnson, deputy regional director for the Denver/Dallas Regional Census Bureau, which monitors census collection for Arizona, said there have been test census collections in cities around the U.S.
Johnson said the most recent test was completed in Providence County, Rhode Island, in April 2018. He said officials conducted the census like it was a real collection, similar to how the 2020 census would go. The test collections offer a chance to see the census’ weakness and strengths.
“We have made every attempt we could to try to break the system,” Johnson said.
He did not disclose any significant problems, but said agencies would continue to monitor and improve systems to prevent collection mistakes and prohibited activities.
According to Providence test census records, 60 percent of survey takers responded online. Johnson said the implementation of technology would not replace a need for human census collectors, although he said Pima County had a shortage of collection employees.
Johnson said the number of census collectors hired would be determined by demand. If more people responded to the other methods, fewer employees would be hired. He did not predict what method would be most popular but said he expected mobile phones to “help response rates tremendously.”
Residents can still provide answers over the phone, or they could request a paper survey to return by mail. People who did not respond to those methods will receive an in-person visit from a census collection employee, who would record data electronically.
Phillip Bramwell is a University of Arizona journalism student and Tucson Local Media intern.